Dark times ahead

We haven’t seen the full effect of Covid-19 yet, and when we do, fingers of blame will hone in without due diligence.

I’m going to put my boot in. This thing’s not over; not by a long shot.

When lockdown is over and the coronavirus takes hold in densely-packed townships and informal settlements, running rampant amongst those denied the luxuries of isolation and working from home, it’s going to enjoy its second breath.

And when people start dying by the dozens, even hundreds - and they will - South Africans will look for someone to blame. Social media has thrown up potential candidates: whites or ‘the rich’ - the two terms are apparently interchangeable.

But surely, that wouldn’t happen? After all, such claims are irrational. 

Think again. In an 

The gossamer wisdom of ‘they’

How can I tell if you’re spreading fake news about Covid-19?

Simple. I ask you one question: Have you ever commented about Covid-19 using the phrase ‘They say that…’? If you have, then, sorry, but you’re probably guilty.

If someone comments with some measure of authority on something using the phrase ‘They say that…’, and I’m within earshot, my reaction is to ask, “Sorry, who are ‘they’?”. It irritates my wife, who I suspect continues to use the phrase simply to return the favour.

There’s a reason for my pernickety inquisition: In journalism, significant value is placed on the credibility of the source of any story or comment within a story. It’s why journalists are very protective of their sources.

If, say, a story breaks about some cutting-edge research, and I have the lead researcher on

What you’re not told about Covid-19 infections

Right now, numbers of infected persons are being bandied about in news media as part of the breathless coverage of Covid-19. Those numbers are meaningless without context.

Let me explain. If the media report, say, 500 Covid-19 infections, my first reaction as a science journalist is to ask how many people were tested. It’s an issue of maths and basic logic.

If, say, 100 people are tested and ten of those test positive, the only thing we can deduce is that ten people - or 10% - of those tested, at the moment they were tested, were positive. That’s it. We can’t extrapolate it to a broader population. 

Let’s say a week later, the number of people tested positive is now 20; has the rate of infection doubled? Not necessarily. It depends on how many people were tested. If, to get

The maverick who got us to wash our hands

The reason you’re encouraged to wash your hands in the face of Covid-19 may seem logical now, but for centuries it wasn’t. It took one of science’s most remarkable - and tragic - mavericks to show the extreme value of a simple act. His story is worth telling.

Here it is, in an extract from my book “Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick”:

When science drops the ball: The uncomfortable truth about science

Unfortunately, because scientific research drives innovation in fields such as medicine, pharmaceuticals, armaments, technology, agriculture, sport and nutrition, it can provide significant financial and political leverage. It has therefore attracted more than its fair share of villains: scientists misrepresenting their findings to fall in line with the demands of their sponsors; research organisations colouring their work to capture

Getting to the heart of atrial fibrillation

Abstract: The sidelining of a top rugby player has thrown the spotlight on a common, often fatal, heart condition... If the sudden withdrawal of Tendai 'The Beast' Mtawarira from the Springbok squad has had any benefits, it's the drawing of attention to a relatively common, and sometimes devastating, heart condition; and one that could be a growing concern for other rugby forwards. Mtawarira's withdrawal was something of a double blow for Springbok supporters, not only because of his prominence in the team; but also because of why he was withdrawn. The official announcement was that he had experienced mild heart palpitations. It's fair to wonder how a man of such physical strength could be sidelined by something that sounds seemingly inconsequential. The reality, according to Dr Vash Mungal-Singh, the CEO of Heart and Stroke Foundation SA, is that what Mtawarira was diagnosed with - atrial

The monster within us

Abstract: Why we should leave smokers alone... I caught a glimpse of her upper thigh as she teasingly lured the hem of her skirt towards her waist. My breath shortened in expectation waiting for a heavenly full disclosure. What would I see, what would she show me? She shrieked with delight and then collapsed on the table to tremendous applause from her friends. The party nearby had been going at it all afternoon and was clearly in an advanced stage of celebration. They had encouraged one of the girls to take to the table in a high-kicking act of can-can, but she couldn't. Instead, she had lifted her skirt in a sensual tease before the sudden increase in altitude cleared her head of consciousness. As I replayed the image in my mind it was accompanied by a subtext that had nothing, and yet

There’s nothing snippy about ‘the snip’

Abstract: there are certain leading figures in South Africa who could prove their manhood by having a vasectomy... Recent events in South African presidential politics got me thinking about vasectomies and how some people, maybe many, might benefit from some people having it done. Of course, the age-old arguments against it still persist in some cultures, and normally hover around misguided notions that having the snip removes a man's masculinity. This is of course, not true. In fact, the very opposite could be argued: that only real men have 'the snip'. Walk into a crowded bar and shout "Hey, who here's having a baby soon?" and proud hands will reach for the sky. Walk into the same bar and shout, "Hey, who here's had a vasectomy?" and the chances are few, if any, would raise their hands. And it's not just a 'guy' thing. A

Light at night sets off alarm bells

Abstract: A branch of science believes bedtime reading increases the risk of breast cancer... For a parent, there are few things more rewarding than the excitement shown by a child when reading them a bedtime story; but there's a branch of science that fears that such a critical parenting role may increase a child's risk of developing the most common cancer found in South African women. Such a summation may not seem out of place in the unfortunately imbalanced rhetoric of poor health reporting typically found in tabloids. You can imagine the headline: "Mother Goose causes cancer!" But the reality is that those conducting research in the discipline of chronobiology - a relatively new branch of science concerned with the internal biological clocks of various living organisms - are concerned that using artificial light at night poses a risk of developing breast cancer. A

The humble potato – villain or victim?

Abstract: Does the potato hold a clue to obesity in South Africa?... Outside of a daily dose of aspirin, few things we pop into our mouths have vacillated so much in their fortunes as the humble potato. One minute it's a staple food source packed with goodness, the other it's nothing more than a lump of carbohydrates heralding all sorts of maladies. In South Africa, a recent event in the media reinvigorated the debate. Tim Noakes, the Professor of Sports Science at UCT, appeared on Carte Blanche passionately presenting the benefits of a high-protein low-carbohydrate diet. More importantly, he suggested that guidelines recommending carbohydrates should form the basis of a healthy diet could in fact be behind the high levels of obesity and other lifestyle health problems that are evident in South Africa. He has since emphasised a point made in the interview that his

Whip out your moral muscle!

Abstract: There's a 'muscle' in your body that could make you healthier...and wealthier... What's long and hard and brings a smile to the face of many a woman? You're right: it's the decision of whether or not to have another piece of chocolate cake; and if decades of research are anything to go by, it's what makes us successful in life. No, not the chocolate cake...the other thing. If there's something that separates us humans from our fellow animals, it's the capacity for higher thought. A wild animal never really ponders whether or not to eat something. It never struggles with the greater philosophical question surrounding the morality of consuming another living thing. It just chomps it. There are of course many examples in the animal kingdom where food, instead of being eaten immediately, is stored for later, or transported to a mate or offspring;